On one beautiful spring evening in Murray Hill, outside of a Gristedes supermarket, a group of about 20 people gathered for a different sort of social activity. They were eating trash. At the center of the group stood Adam Weissman, 28, a diminutive man with a bushy beard and long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Dressed in a faded maroon button-down shirt and black slacks, he arranged the slightly bruised tomatoes, mushy avocados, apples, mushrooms, broccoli and browned bananas pilfered from the trash bags into a makeshift display atop a stack of cardboard boxes. Gesturing to this mound of discarded vegetables, he addressed the group: What we’re going to do now is gather some of these resources, take them for our own use. Knowing everything that went into making these foods, we need to see that they are used appropriately to serve human needs and not just to be the waste products of a heartless profit-driven system. So, Janet has the bags that we can use.
On cue, Janet Kalish stepped forth, her frail figure lost inside an oversized T-shirt that bore a picture of a trashcan and the word GARBAGE.
What we should do is try to make an assembly line, Kalish said as she handed out empty trash bags.
The crowd moved forward and distributed the vegetables amongst each other as instructed, feeling the consistency of the tomatoes and avocados as though they were shopping in the produce section of Gristedes and not rifling through its trash.
A young woman passed by and chatted on her cell phone. She stopped mid-sentence upon seeing this spectacle and grimaced disgustedly before moving on.
Almost every week, Weissman organizes an event commonly referred to as dumpster diving, where he leads an open tour among the various trash heaps and dumpsters of Manhattan to gather discarded food. The activity is part of a larger social movement known as freeganism, which views capitalism as the primary force in destroying the environment and avoids the capitalist structure through such practices as eating discarded food, squatting in abandoned buildings instead of paying rent and refusing to hold a job. Just as vegans are vegetarians who avoid animal products, freegans subsist only on free food found in the garbage as consumer waste. In Manhattan, there is plenty to go around.
According to a 2004 study from the University of Arizona, American households on average waste 14 percent of their food purchases annually, 15 percent of which are products discarded when still within their expiration date. Through dumpster diving and other activities, Weissman’s modest goal is to present practical alternatives to the wasteful consumption habits of modern American society and inspire others to follow his lead. He has based his entire life around this purpose.
Punctuating various points in his argument by waving a bruised banana with his left hand, Weissman continued his oration as the other dumpster divers loaded their trash bags with vegetables. The banana served as a prop for addressing rainforest destruction in Brazil.
In Latin America, rainforests are being clear cut so that banana plantations can be grown, can be sprayed heavily with pesticide so that workers can be miserably exploited for basically slave wages so that these crops can be exploited here, Weissman said.
In the supermarket window behind Weissman, a large manager glared disapprovingly upon the scene and gestured for one of the other employees to break up Weissman’s impromptu soapbox speech. A few minutes and more wild gesticulations later, the reluctant enforcer came outside and Weissman offered him some of the foraged food before agreeing to leave and moving to the next location.
Weissman has practiced freeganism in one form or another since he was 17. He is careful to point out that there is no litmus test for freeganism but rather a variety of lifestyle choices (such as dumpster diving) that are in alignment with the ethos of freeganism.
Freeganism is an ideal, it’s a range of practices, it’s a commitment, he said. There are many things one can do which are freegan but there is no standard by which someone has to meet a number of points to be a freegan.
That being said, he does practice most of the movement’s ideals. He subsists solely on trash, or recovered food, and tries to acquire all of his possessions in a similar manner. For example, he owns a computer but acquired it in a decidedly freegan manner. An office building that was closing donated the hard drive. His friend gave him a monitor, and he found a keyboard in the trash. Found items do have their downside: He spent the majority of a recent afternoon on the phone with tech support because it stopped working.
He is also unemployed, choosing to spend his free time volunteering for a variety of activism groups. The main part of his life not in accordance with traditional freegan ideals is the fact that he doesn’t squat, or live in an abandoned building, though he is quick to point out he doesn’t pay rent. Instead, he lives with and cares for his grandparents in Teaneck, N.J., where he also grew up. He admires the sense of thrift and conservation cultivated by his grandparents as a result of their experiences in the Great Depression but is at ideological odds with the rest of his family, saying that his father’s job robbed him of his entire life.
Weissman hated school and described the extent of his educational background as high school graduate under duress.
I think school is one of the most destructive institutions in our society, he said.
They promote obedience, they promote conformity, they promote the idea of unquestioning acceptance of authority and they promote the idea that we should accept daily boredom and misery and enforced banality as simply the way that life is. I hated every day of school and would never go back.
On 40th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington, Weissman led the divers to a mound of clear trash bags on the sidewalk in front of Au Bon Pain. With a sense of expert proficiency, he immediately zeroed in on a bag containing pastries, bagels, croissants, cinnamon buns and sandwiches that were still warm.
Again, if folks want to get some resources, Janet will have bags available as she always does for all your starch-filled needs, he said.
While the group plundered the bags, Weissman spoke about the evils of wage labor as he clutched a bagel in his hand. A group of three men in business suits walked by and did a double take in disbelief over the feeding frenzy that was taking place. Someone excitedly pointed out the discovery of some breadsticks in the trash bag left closest to the curb.
The next few locations failed to match the bounty found at Au Bon Painuntil the group came upon another Gristedes on the corner of 32nd Street and Third Avenue.
Welcome To Your Gristedes Mega Store the block letters inside read. A large ticker sign was wrapped around the inside wall like a Wall Street trading floor as bright red text spat out a rapid fire stream of sale items: Leg of Lamb 3.49 lb, Cooks Shank Half 1.49 lb, Bartlett Pears 1.49 lb
The dumpster divers outside stood in stark contrast to this scene as they methodically waded through the store’s large blue dumpster, the first real dumpster of the evening.
We’re early, Weissman said. Usually there are three dumpsters here.
Nonetheless, as the ticker inside forecasted, this dumpster had much to offer: an assortment of microwave dinners, warm rotisserie chickens, baked goods and even a case of Perrier water.
The Perrier proved to be the evening’s jackpot for the divers, as they festively toasted one another and rejoiced that the bottles were still carbonated.
They’ll see me at work tomorrow and think I’m rich, said one excited diver.
Kedar Phillips, 21, was also thrilled with the Perrier discovery. His primary motivation for dumpster diving was to save money. He supported the movement but was not a practicing freegan, and the fact that he was dressed head to toe in new Mets paraphernalia suggested as much. Traveling from Washington Heights to participate for the tenth time, Philips spoke of the dumpster dive as though it were first and foremost a casual social activity.
It’s warm outside so it makes it easier to do it and there’s a nice crowd of people out tonight, so it’s a pretty good dive, Phillips said. I did it in the winter a few times but I kind of stopped. All of February and March I kind of went into hibernation.
Of course, some divers shared Weissman’s ideals. Eric Bakunin, 18 years old and a self-professed anarchist, had been dumpster diving on his own for almost two years before meeting Weissman at an anarchist rally. Weissman told him of the weekly dumpster tour and Bakunin came out for his first group dive.
I think it’s great that activities that were originally ghettoized are starting to get attention, Bakunin said.
It’s much more effective if we can run our own lives and provide for ourselves and mutually share with each other.
Following the Perrier triumph, Weissman led the group to a D’Agostino three blocks north. It was now past 11 p.m. and several of the divers left the group, their trash bags filled from foraging.
A young woman in a stylish white trench coat walked past the scene and turned to her friend in disbelief, saying, They’re going through food that’s been thrown away!
Weissman assembled those who were still present for a final stop back to Daniel’s Bagels. As expected, an enormous bag filled with bagels was waiting on the curb. Weissman grabbed a bagel from the bag and a mushy avocado from his backpack. He began dipping the bagel into the soupy avocado and looked around at the surrounding neighborhood.
When asked whether he viewed living so close to a beacon of unfettered capitalism such as New York as contradictory to his ideals, he quickly denied it.
This is exactly where we need to be, he said. If there’s any one place on the planet where there’s a vital need for people to be suggesting that capitalism is not a sustainable system, where people need to be demonstrating that we can create alternative ways of living to capitalism, then I think New York is that place.
Pausing to dab at the gobs of avocado stuck in his beard he said, I couldn’t think of another place in the world that would be more appropriate to what we’re doing.